By Simon Basketter
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John le Carré—the novelist who tried to unmask the truth of British intelligence

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Issue 2735
le Carres writing has contributed to what we think of when we think of spies and the Cold war
John le Carré’s writing has contributed to what we think of when we think of spies and the Cold war (Pic: German Embassy London/Wikimedia commons)

John le Carré, the great spy novelist has died aged 89.

It is a sign of his success that much of what people think about spies and the Cold War comes from le Carré.

He invented the language of modern espionage — the Circus, tradecraft, lamplighters, moles, scalphunters, pavement artists, the honey trap.

By exploring treachery at the heart of British intelligence, le Carré challenged assumptions about the Cold War.

Le Carré’s heroes were trapped in a wilderness of mirrors. The Cold War, for le Carré, was A Looking Glass War with no heroes and where morals were for saleor betrayal.

And betrayal of family, lovers, ideology and country run through the novels. In particular they use deceit as a way to tell the story of Britain’s sentimental failure to see its own post-imperial decline.

“It’s not a shooting war any more, George. That’s the trouble,” a character Connie Sachs tells spy catcher George Smiley in Smiley’s People. “It’s grey. Half angels fighting half devils. No-one knows where the lines are”.

Elsewhere she says, “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.”

Le Carre himself seemed a member of the English establishment. Conventionally well-spoken, educated at Sherborne public school and Oxford, and he taught at Eton.

But as his readers know, impressions are never reliable.

David Cornwell was born in 1931 in Dorset. His father was a con man. His mother left the family when he was 5 years old.

He nurtured deep resentments and class insecurities. He said, “From an early age, I was pretending to be who I wasn’t, I was pretending to be a normal kid like all the other kids in the boarding school, pretending to go back to a settled household and pretending to have a mother.”


His insecurities meant that public school left “the indelible scars that a neo-fascist regime of corporal punishment and single-sex confinement inflicts upon its wards”.

At Oxford, he socialised with the privileged sons of inherited wealth without being one of them. “I am a liar,” le Carré was quoted as saying by his biographer Adam Sisman. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.”

After the authorised biography was published he fired out his own memoir. He was always careful to write his own myths. He was deliberately an enigmapossibly even to even to himself.

After a spell in the army, he studied German at Oxford, where he informed on left-wing students for MI5. He progressed to spying on Communist trade unionists for a period.

He then moved to MI6. As the Berlin Wall went up, le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where a British spy is sacrificed for an ex-Nazi turned Communist who is a British mole.

“What the hell do you think spies are?,” asks Alex Leamas a British spy who is shot on the Berlin Wall.”They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.”

The discovery, which began in the 1950s that Russia had run spies recruited at Cambridge to penetrate British intelligence shaped his work and its popularity.

That spying was clearly in reality grubbier than James Bond meant le Carré’s work seemed closer to the squalid truth.

He wove the story of that Cambridge spies into the Karla trilogy, beginning with the novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Le Carré’s legacy—A Legacy of Spies is both prequel and sequel to earlier work
Le Carré’s legacy—A Legacy of Spies is both prequel and sequel to earlier work
  Read More

Smiley, his greatest creation, is an unexpected sort of a hero, “a committed doubter.”

He has “sacrificed his life to institutions” but is determined to protect what is worth protecting in a world of disintegrating values.

Among other things, le Carré was a subtle and darkly humorous observer of character.


Spies and politicians use language to cover themselves in case of later revelation.

That deceit means le Carré at his best could turn conversation into a bloodsport in a way few writers manage.

He was, by his own account, a writer of “political novels”.

He was for the establishment but simultaneously estranged from it and furious at it. A patriot who put “country before friends”, he refused honours and a knighthood.

He had close friendships with awful rightwingers, but was a long-time Labour voter though to his credit he loathed Tony Blair.

In Our Kind of Traitor a spook relates, “I refer to that unfortunate fallow period between the Berlin Wall coming down and Osama Bin Laden doing us the favour of 9/11.”

But there wasn’t a fallow period for le Carré, instead as he said, “I’ve become more radical in old age than I’ve ever been.”

He scattered polemics across his later novels.

He was enraged by the arrogance and indifference of wealth and power, the irresponsibly selfish and the readiness to use others as mere instruments.

“The new American realism, which is nothing other than gross corporate power cloaked in demagogy, means one thing only: that America will put America first in everything,” he wrote in the foreword to The Tailor of Panama.

He condemned the iniquities of “extraordinary rendition” and evil done by multinational companies.

His later novels dealt with the international arms trade, the pharmaceutical industry, competition to exploit natural resources, and banking.

The fate of the Muslim immigrant Issa Karpov in A Most Wanted Man, torn to shreds by competing intelligence agencies pushed against the war on terror narrative.

As did the attack on Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq in Absolute Friends.

He often asked, “Who will save us from capitalism?” He rarely found an answer but the journey was always thrilling and surprising.

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